human rights China

Teaching a Human Rights Based Approach to Social Workers in China

Photo: Wang Luqian in the middle and Zhang Qiuxue to the right, two social workers undergoing RWI training in Beijing

Judicial social workers from across Beijing are participating in a training to look at the practice of social work from a human rights perspective, with a specific emphasis on juveniles in contact with the law.

“This is part of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s ongoing support to legal reforms and mechanisms that better protect the rights of juveniles in China,” says Merethe Borge MacLeod, head of RWI’s Beijing office.

We asked a few questions to Jane McPherson, a social work professor from the US and one of the trainers.

She has experience in international social work from the Middle East, Brazil and the Balkans.

She now teaches and researches the interface between social work and human rights at the University of Georgia. She is part of a growing movement to use the human rights discourse to inform emancipatory social work practice.

How does a human rights approach enrich and strengthen social work?

Social work tradititionally has aimed at social justice, but social justice is an undefined term. Human rights provide a structure for a just society, and an assessment framework by which social workers can understand the differential access to the goods and services of society. This in turn allows social workers to advocate for expanded access for the marginaised populations with which they work.

Human rights also help focus social workers’ attention away from charity and towards dignity. Human rights assert that all human beings should have their basic needs met, and to participate in the society of which they are a part. A human rights lens therefore extends the understanding of the individual client and their personal set of concerns to the more structural causes of inequality at the community level.

What are the main challenges faced by social workers taking on a human rights practice?

Social workers are often in a complex middle position, as they work for their individual clients but also for the state and society at large. They need to negotiate this balance, and it can be hard when for example policies and procedures are not in the interests of their clients. Taking a human rights approach to social work accentuates this complexity as social workers analyse government policies from a human rights perspective, and sometimes find them at odds with the human rights of their clients. Such a level of engagement is very positive for advocacy and policy changes, but it requires a broad range of skills and a high level of personal committment.

Social workers from Chaoyue Social Work Agency

Wang Luqian and Zhang Qiuxue are judicial social workers with RWI’s partner Chaoyue Social Work Agency in Beijing, working to support juveniles in conflict with the law.They are excited to be working at the forefront of human rights based social work in China.

From a human rights perspective, what are the main challenges of your job?

The major structural challenge is the lack of a comprehensive child welfare system, and the lack of a separate juvenile justice system. Because of this, there is a scarcity of appropriate services and facilities for juveniles in conflict with the law, such as shelter, diverse school options, probabtion bases, counselling services etc.

But recently there is an increased awareness of the human rights of juveniles amongst stakeholders like police and prosecutors, and they now help provide more resources to juveniles.

Previously it was only us social workers who were scrambling around for support services and facilities. A wide range of stakeholders now see the importance of protecting the rights of juveniles, and also because there is an increased emphasis on this at a national level due to the recent legal reforms, espcially the revised Criminal Procedure Law and its provisions for juveniles such as a requirement of social investigation, and appropriate adult system.

There is now much better cooperation between all of us here in Haidian District, and in many ways we are the most advanced when it comes to protectint the rights of juveniles.

How can a human rights approach help you do your job as a social worker?

Changing our perspective from a needs-based approach to a rights-based approach means that we really look at the situation of each juvenile in a more comprehensive way – instead of asking what they need from us social workers, we start by asking whether their rights have been violated and whether perhaps this is at the root of their problems.

For example, if a juvenile has been violent towards their boss, previously we would just tell them that this is wrong and has consequences. Now we also understand that if for example their reaction was caused by them not getting paid by their employer, this is at the beginning a violation of their rights, and then we take it from there.

A human rights approach can help us assess whether for example juvenile work placements are just and equal for all. It can also lend voice to our clients; currently we as social workers take the lead in conversations but we hope in the future we can support the juveniles in voicing their concerns and needs.